A woman speaks up from the bloodbath of Algeria

Louisa Hanoune, a Trotskyist, is one of the few brave enough to condemn both sides in a vicious civil war. As the authorities claimed a mandate to suppress Islamists, she talked to Robert Fisk
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At first sight, the headquarters of the Algerian Workers' Party looks like a home for lost causes.

The posters on the wall - "American, British and French Troops, Get Out of the Gulf!" and "French troops out of Africa!" - speak of hopelessness. The pamphlets on the grubby linoleum tablecloth, demanding "peace, bread, land, liberty, dignity, constitutional sovereignty" could be relics of the Spanish civil war. But Louisa Hanoune was born in 1954 - the year the Algerians began their war against French rule - and for her the revolution has never ended.

"In the run-up to the referendum, President Zeroual and the Prime Minister went on television, but the people didn't want to talk about the constitution - one woman told Zeroual that she had been living in a basement for 16 years, that salaries weren't being paid. No one asked questions about the referendum." Ms Hanoune's face - the whole face, forehead, eyebrows, cheeks - and long red hair, tied behind her head, move expressively as she speaks. It's not difficult to see how her packed meetings, albeit in support of a very minority Trotskyist party, are roused to anger.

"Every night on television now, our ministers talk to us. But the television people play an applause track: you see the minister - but you never see the audience. When we hold rallies, we are only given permission at the last moment. When [former prime minister] Reda Malek spoke at the Salle d'Afrique, everything was fine. When I arrived next day, the microphone mysteriously didn't work."

The results of last week's referendum - which approved a new constitution that bans parties based on religion, gives the President a veto over all parliamentary legislation and allows him to rule by decree - were greeted with cynicism by Ms Hanoune. "I cannot trust the government on any election figures," she says. "Under French colonial rule, all the elections here were fixed. After the revolution, it was the same thing. In 1991, they didn't like the results of the parliamentary election [which the Islamic Salvation Front would have won], so they cancelled the poll. They can manipulate the figures whenever they want.."

And indeed, it's difficult to find any bar government supporters who really believe that more than 78 per cent of the electorate voted last week, let alone that 85 per cent of them approved the new constitution. Every opposition group - even those like the "soft" Islamic Hamas party - is disputing the figures. And much good may it do them.

Ms Hanoune comes from a poor family - her father hid mujahid fighters in his home during the independence war - and she herself trained as a lawyer. "Not the kind of start in life you would expect for a Trotskyist," she says. She fears for the future as much as she dreads the new culture of weapons, the new economy of war, which has spread across Algeria since the conflict between the authorities and the violent Islamists began in 1992. Government-supported "auto-defence" units are no more than privatised militias which have already sunk to theft and Mafia-style protection rackets to supplement the government's failure to pay their wages.

"The government has been distributing weapons to the villages since 1993," she says. "They say these are to defend isolated regions against the Islamists. There are now armed groups who are out of control in the confusion of the war. Of course, I can understand that the father of a family in an isolated region wants to defend the honour of his family. He takes up arms because there is no more state and no more security.

"And you can see how the [Islamist] provocations are organised against the villages to force them to take arms. But when a state delegates its security powers to individuals, the state doesn't exist any more. Now the militias symbolise the privatisation of the war. Some have become little warlords, mafia bands who carry out hold-ups on the roads, who say they are Islamists but steal cars. For them, war has become a means of economic survival."

No one doubts the horrors that are taking place in the mountains south of Algiers: the rape and throat-cutting of women by members of the Islamic Armed Group, the private revenge killings, the exodus of thousands of villagers from their unprotected homes - herded into schools and football stadiums by the authorities in the larger cities before being ordered to return to their wasted villages. But, Louisa Hanoune asks, how will the "communal guards" be disarmed when the war ends?

"The unemployed are asked to take arms and told it's the only job they'll get," she says. "The government has paid only their first few months' salary, so now they're forced to steal. There are 170,000 soldiers in the Algerian army but along with the armed police and gendarmerie, the `village guards' have now swelled the armed forces of Algeria to 550,000. This country is turning into a powder-keg."

The Algerian Workers' Party is no friend of violence. At least 345 of its trade union members have been murdered, most by Islamist groups, and Ms Hanoune says that 2,000 trade unionists languish in Algerian prisons. She does not wish her party to return underground, as it was in the years of FLN dictatorship. But she believes that dialogue rather than confrontation is the only way to lead Algeria out of a bloodbath which she says has cost at least 100,000 lives.

"We prefer the confrontation of ideas to the language of weapons," she says. "As Voltaire said `I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it'." Unfortunately for Louisa Hanoune, Voltaire cuts a pretty poor figure in Algeria these days.